RIP David Rakoff (1964-2012)

David Rakoff died last night. Of cancer. Of course.

But you already knew that. Because when someone dies at 47, we prick up our ears, we start feeling around for answers. And although it could have been any number of things, only cancer has that special little twinge of evil you just felt. It’s like digging around in your purse and driving a thumb tack under your nail.

David Rakoff was one of the founding voices of This American Life. If you have not been listening to This American Life all along, a) you live under a rock, and b) oh, you have such treats in store!

I love David Rakoff. There’s such a fragility to him: many of his stories are rich, full, detailed examinations of excruciating social disasters. But he writes with such purpose, taking control of those stories by telling them at his pace now, dammit, with so many digressions and comparisons and quips that you realize you’ll just have to rise and fall with the waves and he’ll land you on the beach eventually.

Which (you also realize) is fine with you because this was a man who loved words, loved the taste of them, loved pulling them like taffy. And although the result was delicious, apparently it was just as easy for him to write as it is for any of us. Which is to say, not.

Writing only ever begins badly. And you have to sit and tolerate yourself long enough to grind out a sh*tty draft. And unlike cooking, where you basically put together a meal out of palatable ingredients, what you have to essentially do [in writing] is reverse-engineer something edible from rotten, stinking, slimy, moldy food. That can be hard.

This was from an interview, very much off the cuff. Even so we get not just rotten food, but “rotten, stinky, slimy, moldy” food, a holding pattern of adjectives keeping us right there over the can until he feels we’ve gotten our noseful. Well played, sir.

And somewhere near the end of every essay, he just drops you. There are authors who make you climb a mountain so you can see the view. David Rakoff gives you no such warning: he’s going along, telling the story, you’re riding the waves and eating… taffy… or something… and then he slows down, just a bit. And turns ever so slightly to the left. And points. At the point. Which, of course, had been there all the time, but he distracted¬†you so you forgot, didn’t you, that essays always have a point. And now you’re staring at it and you feel… well. You feel whatever David Rakoff wants you to feel, don’t you? Yes you do.

The link at the top goes to his final essay for This American Life, perhaps his final essay for anyone. He looks tired. Bald and gray and tired. He looks like a man who’s had four surgeries and radiation and lots and lots of chemo. All the memorials will have that image. I prefer this one, from the dust jacket of Don’t Get Too Comfortable:

Farewell, David Rakoff. You deserved better.


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